Jen Jeffrey: How I Got Away With Being Willie Mae

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 - by Jen Jeffrey

It was March 2012 when my boss asked me if I could try my hand at writing a few restaurant reviews. I am not a food critic by any means, but I think he asked me not only because he needed more writing in the dining section, but he knew I needed the extra money and I had written about a few dining experiences when I lived in New York.

Anytime John Wilson asked me to try something out I had to believe that he saw potential in me. Even if I wasn’t sure I could pull something off, I never told him no. I tried whatever assignments he offered, from writing my weekly column to interviewing farmers for the Growing Local series and writing the weekly people profile articles. It was challenging to learn as I went, but I loved it all.

So, who wouldn’t like to eat for a living and write about it? I read over a review of a writer who had worked for John to get an idea of what he wanted.

John asked me to come up with a name because I would be writing ‘incognito’. This would be fun! I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could have been a snobby, young, beauty named Celeste…or perhaps a chubby, former chef named Dom. No, I wanted to be a little old lady…with my grandmother’s name. Her name was Willie Mae Morton, but I didn’t want to use her whole name.

John asked, “Just Willie Mae? No Last name?” I told him at first that maybe people might even think it is a man with the name Willie Mae and we could let them all wonder, but Willie Mae ended up creating herself as an old woman from the south, as I went.

The first restaurant I tried was Blue Grass Grill. Now, writing as Jen Jeffrey I had always liked adding humor in my stories because life is just funny and I don’t want others to miss that part. If I can make someone smile for just a moment in their day, it’s worth however many paragraphs it takes. So as I took notes about what I ate and how it tasted I used my cell phone and looked like a self-absorbed twit who tweets every time they took a few bites. I even typed notes about things that I thought were funny.

Surely, people would not care just about the price of food or what some random person thought of it. I thought they’d like to know that I shared a long bench against the wall next to a guy whose leg was shaking a mile a minute and he nearly made me spill my coffee. What would the world be like if we missed this stuff? I had to write about it!

After I had written about my dining experience, I submitted it to John. Then I got nervous and looked over the other writer’s reviews and noticed, that I spent more time on the experience than I did the price, the other items on the menu and all the restaurant had to offer. I felt as though I may have not done my job very well (and pleasing John was about as important as when I had tried to please my dad).

In my insecurity, I wrote him an email telling him I read more of Janet’s reviews and I realize I didn’t really write it like she did. I asked, “Do you want me to do it over and do it more like she did?” He wrote back telling me, “Do it your way.”

I always loved that about John – he gives his writers such freedom to express themselves and that is usually when he gets gold out of them.

Who knew Willie Mae would be such a hit. Maybe John saw something in it, but I was just having fun and wasn’t sure how many I would get to do. But then, I really got into creating Willie Mae’s life. I write telling you about ‘her’ as if she were a true person because …she became one.

I loved the whole incognito thing… restaurants who are on the lookout for food reviewers like to give their staff a heads up – but they would be looking for a little old woman with her tablet and pen in hand and not ‘me’.

There was only one person that ever knew who Willie Mae was without being told. He was a reader who followed me from my writing in New York and back to Chattanooga. He wrote in sometimes and we became friends on Facebook.

I had a few friends on Facebook who knew what I was doing and I had made a comment to someone about ‘needing to do a WM’. My friend Michael sent me a private message and said, “Would this WM happen to be a Willie Mae?”

I was shocked! How could he have figured that out? But he was one of my fans who read all my stories and he said that I had the same writing style as Willie Mae. So before I went any further, I began changing my style with Willie Mae. I made my paragraphs shorter and I was mindful to use different wording in verbs, adjectives and especially in thought. I thought like an old woman and how I did that was to use three people – my grandmother, my Mama and the ‘me’ I think I will be at 80.

At first I did the reviews alone, but after I realized I was not going to be good at impeccable food reviews and it was more about the story, I knew I couldn’t find humor in a ketchup bottle – I had to add people.

It was during the time I had just gotten settled in my new apartment and asked my son to room with me and share rent. It was a good set up for us because he and I liked a lot of the same things and, both being nerds we also liked having time to stay to ourselves.

My son Nathan agreed to go with me on one of my ‘jaunts’ – a new word Willie used for her new hobby. We dined at Tony’s and this was where I began creating a life for ol’ Willie.

Willie Mae had a friend named Lou, but they were not an item. Lou was created at first by watching my son’s habits. He was more cultured than I, having traveled abroad and he loved gourmet food. So Lou became a ‘know-it-all’ who knew about food.

After I sent in the story, I had forgotten to add a title. John was still busy molding me and teaching me and sometimes, it was by not saying anything, but letting me catch my own mistakes. John put a title on it for me and it was weird! But I noticed that the story got more hits than before. It could have been a combination of things, the funny title, the fact that people were catching onto Willie Mae and realizing she was for entertainment and also by adding people and giving Willie Mae a life. I learned to come up with catchy titles.

Oh, there were skeptics wondering if this funny old lady ‘were real’, but no one (other than my friend Michael) ever guessed who it was and I worked more on Willie’s life with characters to make her more real. It was fun to watch the talk.

And, just how did I get to be that fly on the wall?

My son Nathan created a Facebook Page for me and he even went as far as creating a picture of Willie Mae. He merged my face with Mama’s face and it was hilarious how much it created a whole different person! I put her picture up and would post the links to her stories, but I soon took the photo down before she achieved her popularity. I didn’t think the picture looked like the ‘Willie Mae’ in my head. And I liked letting readers have their own image of her in their minds.

But as I posted the links on the Facebook page as Willie Mae, I got to have a little interaction with readers and see what they were saying.

Most people loved Willie Mae and her sass, but occasionally I’d see where someone didn’t get her satire, and one person even wrote to Willie Mae in a private message on her Facebook page.

The letter was tastefully written and simply expressed her concern with Willie Mae writing about a ‘waitress who looked Spanish’. This reader wanted to educate Willie Mae about her descriptions and how not to offend people. I agreed with Jocelyn, but only as Jen Jeffrey. As Willie Mae, she was too old to worry with that and she was brought up differently and hadn’t ever been out of the South. I needed to keep Willie Mae’s correspondence in line with her character, so Willie Mae apologized to Jocelyn, but explained in very few words that she didn’t mean any harm.

I had even waited a few days before answering Jocelyn in hopes that she would think Willie Mae was not computer savvy. After that, she wrote me back to educate me even more and I just could not write her back. It could have blown my cover and I just hoped she would think I was too old to keep up with her.

I felt bad in doing that, so to make it up to her (unbeknownst to Jocelyn) I as Jen Jeffrey who was still writing on people of Chattanooga, contacted her for an interview to talk about her “I Heart Chatt” campaign. Our interview was done by phone, but I liked Jocelyn and added her as a friend on Facebook and got to know her even more – but she never knew I was Willie Mae.

There was a little hate mail that came in my publisher’s way too in the beginning. He let me know that he received a few emails over Willie mentioning a restaurant she wanted to try but they were closed. You can understand how this would frustrate an old lady when she pulls up hankering for good old southern biscuits and they had closed for a few hours – the very hours she did her ‘spying’. John had my back though and encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing.

My friend Jenny Gienapp edits for the Chattanoogan and we have a mutual friend on Facebook. Early on when Willie Mae first began, Trudy wrote Jenny and told her she did NOT like that Willie Mae writer. Willie Mae had not given one of Trudy’s favorite places a very good review. Jenny kept her mouth closed and did not tell our friend it was me.

Oh, I hated giving a negative review. I liked being nice to everybody and being sweet… but that is who Jen Jeffrey is.

Willie Mae is over 80 years old and she saw things a little differently. She was fair and always truthful, but because she was not Jen Jeffrey, she could get away with telling the truth no matter how much it hurt and no one would come after Jen Jeffrey!

Yes, I always told the truth – everything I said that happened, truly happened. The only thing I ever fudged on was in creating my characters. I fibbed talking about my dentures or my reading glasses or whatever else made me sound old. And then creating other characters … when I went to lunch with Mama, I couldn’t have her be Willie’s Mama, so she became Willie’s best pal “Lois” … and oh the saga was born.

Willie Mae and Lois were a hit. Lois was a finicky eater who never liked anything. Why in the world would Willie ask Lois to ever do a review with her? Because she was her best friend and people learned to love Willie and Lois’ relationship.  They identified with the best friends who sometimes fussed or disagreed. But readers knew they loved each other as best pals.

It was so fun creating Lois, because my Mama is really that funny. It was such a delight to share that time with her and I will always have that memory of Mama and me playing our parts and having a ball.

My favorite Lois story had to be the time when I took Mama to Aretha Frankenstein’s. Mama IS a scardy-cat and it was perfect in creating Lois’s persona. Mama did not like being downtown, because she remembered what it was like years ago. Aretha’s was too crowded that day, so we ended up going to The Blue Plate.

A few weeks later I tricked Mama and did not tell her we were going to try Aretha’s again. Of course I wrote about that in the story and I think readers felt sorry for Lois. I would have felt sorry for her if I didn’t know her so well and knew she would be okay once she saw how downtown had changed and that Aretha’s was really good.

In changing my writing style, I also repeated favorite phrases I used so that people came to expect it and felt they ‘knew’ Willie Mae. The most used phrase which became Willie’s signature phrase if she really liked a place was giving it a “whee-ee-doggie!”

Then it was fun to put in the phrase, “But I didn’t say a word, I just minded my own business…” (which Willie Mae never did). Once I used the phrase, “I swonny” and my boss, who doesn’t reply or comment on each submission we send in, wrote back that he liked that part.

Willie Mae gave something to us all. She was a memory of a grandmother or aunt we knew or she took us to a time when things were as simple as she saw it.

My friend Jenny who edits the obituaries would occasionally send me a link to one of the obits and tell me that “I died” whenever she came across the name Willie Mae. I guess people would wonder about that knowing Willie was up there in years and then seeing an obit with that long-forgotten name.

I think my boss knew before I did, the popularity that Willie Mae started receiving. I was in a new Sunday school class at First Presbyterian Church and, as people asked about me I told them I wrote for the online news publication and we discussed what assignments I had. One lady identified with me as I spoke of the Growing Local farming articles and then a gentleman got in on the conversation and asked who I wrote for. When I said the Chattanoogan, he said he read it every day and that he really loved one of our writers that did the food reviews.

“Let’s see what is her name... Willie Mae… yeah… she’s funny!” he said.

As vague as I could be, I agreed with him, but I acted as if I had to recall who he was talking about. On the inside, I was beaming. People were reading my stories in the dining section. And, I was FUNNY! I have always said that I could care less if I’m told that I am pretty, but when I am told I am funny – I feel like I have won the lottery.

I knew Willie’s popularity had grown when I looked on the Willie Mae Facebook page as administrator and saw that a few links to my stories had been shared. I clicked to find out who shared them and one of the readers was Holly Leber of the Chattanooga Times. She is a writer herself and had been following my Willie Mae stories and had somewhat formed a ‘Willie Mae club’ where she would ‘tag’ a few of her cronies on Facebook and they all made comments about the latest Willie Mae story.

It was fun being the fly on the wall and reading what they were saying, though sometimes I think they misunderstood Willie (getting a little naughty in their comments) but the point was – they were talking about her and having fun.

When Jenny, who lives in Wyoming pulled us writers together for a staff picnic, there was even talk amongst the other writers.

“Who is Willie Mae?” Some wondered if it were John himself and, that would be a likely suspect because John has some funny writing in him as well as his hard news pieces.

It was never easy for me to keep a straight face and not laugh or be caught in a fib, but I had learned to do so when I took Willie Mae on (at least with the subject of Willie Mae, because I had already talked to God about that).  As people talked asking John who it was, I was standing right there and his face was as unyielding as ever. And then when someone asked me if I knew her, I simply said in a joyful tone, “No I don’t know her, but I was hoping to meet her at this picnic – I thought I saw her name on the guest list.”

That was when I could have sworn I saw a slight smile on my boss’s face. We kept the secret going even with fellow writers. Jenny was my partner in crime whenever I needed to change something in a story.

My friend Holly Berry was also a cohort, when I had been going to a restaurant every week for a few years and needed suggestions on other places I hadn’t tried yet.

Holly was a foodie person and I let her be ‘my granddaughter Natalie’. Natalie was created once before when my son Nathan went with me and I had to change up being with Lou all the time – or readers would think Willie Mae was sweet on him and he was just a friend. I had taken my twins with me once and Nathan was Natalie and Jonathan was Natalie’s friend Nicole.  Nathan had been Lou, granddaughter Natalie and then I created Willie Mae’s son ‘Jack’.

Jack had to be different than Lou the know-it-all, so he was known as a ‘good eater’. Eventually, my husband filled the role of Willie’s son Jack because his personality just fit that one better than Lou. Though Jason would also fill in for Lou at times.

I never knew how the story would go. Whoever went with me would ask, “Who am I this time?” and I would say, “I don’t know yet…” and it would depend on what they said and what happened around us for me to decide which character they seemed like most that day.

Sometimes, when I went to a place and I would think I didn’t have much to write about and then when I sat down at my computer with my notes, the magic began and I would giggle as I wrote. There were stories that I felt weren’t as funny as the rest, but usually there was always something that happened that would make the story.

How long would this last? How many places in three years had I NOT tried? Thankfully, Chattanooga was a city who meant business when it came to food. There was a new restaurant going up all the time.

When Jason and I were dating long distance and he would go with me when he came to Chattanooga, I figured if we got married I would have to quit doing the reviews. I knew I could still do phone interviews for the people profiles and I could still write my column as Jen Jeffrey, but there was no way I could travel each week to be Willie Mae eating in Chattanooga.

My son Nathan had gone with me so much and he is a writer too, that I thought perhaps he could take over. But he had his own passions and as Jason and I talked of marriage I thought maybe I could do as many as I could in one visit and spread the stories out weekly.

After I moved to Kentucky, I was already in the process of writing my book about Willie Mae. My thoughts were to compile all my stories over the last few years and make a coffee table book. Then the next book would be called “Willie Mae and Lois’ Adventures” and I would make that one about traveling.

At first as I came to Chattanooga every other month, it was hard trying to get in visits with my kids, my sisters and Mama and go out to eat 12 times. It got to where I did not enjoy restaurant food. Once a week was fine, but to eat out 12 times morning, noon and night for a few days was costly upfront and not very good for my stomach.

Jason (even though he was mostly ‘son Jack’ who liked to eat) also felt it was just too much food at once. I finally had Willie Mae and Lou become an item because Jason was with me so much, but he ended up letting me go to Chattanooga by myself sometimes and Willie Mae and Lois would go on a few jaunts.

I knew I couldn’t keep it up, so as I worked on my books I also had the third book in mind of how Willie Mae would ‘tell all’ and let the cat out of the bag (or a wee little doggie). My brother in-law Jim Fielden was helping me with his expertise. I even thought of making Willie Mae tee shirts, but as my life changed and I was writing less, my trips to Chattanooga were less also.

Living in a very small town, I lost my zeal for writing because my husband is involved in the community and his business and he would always worry that someone might take something I wrote the wrong way – and sure enough someone did. I did not like ‘writing on eggshells’ and my heart for writing took a backward step. Oh yes, I still love to write, but as I thought of how I gained ten pounds each year since I started writing, I knew it was time to step away from the computer and begin something more active.

The opportunity to purchase and run a horse ranch was a welcomed change. I have now been sending in a monthly writing called the Jolly Rancher about the musings of learning how to be a rancher. I don’t write very often, but I know I will one day pick it back up. For now, I am enjoying my husband, the ranch and my horses.

As for Willie Mae, she ended up ‘getting hitched to ol’ Lou’ and moving outside of Chattanooga quite a ways (that explained her periodic submissions).

The stories are still compiled for a book and it would be fun to publish, just to have just for myself, but who knows … maybe people would enjoy reading the stories again through different eyes now that Willie Mae has ‘retired’.

The only thing left to say now is, “Whee-ee-doggie! It’s been a fun ride.”


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